Our Changing Users: The Aging of the Population

by Danielle H.M. King, Program Manager, Washington Talking Book & Braille Library

“The world at large is now gaining an additional one million older persons each month.”1 In a recent assessment of our patron profiles at the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library (WTBBL), we found that over 60% of our patrons are 65 years or older.  In fact, 29% are between the ages of 65-84, 30% are between the ages of 85-99, and 1% (85) is patrons who are 100 years old or older.  Recent profiles of library patrons, coupled with the fact that the 65 and over population is growing faster than any other segment of the population, requires some serious consideration of the needs of the older population, their role in society, and the implications for library service.

“Population aging is profound, having major consequences and implications for all facets of human life.”2 As Robert Butler states in his book the Longevity Revolution, the “Longevity Revolution is a great intellectual and social as well as medical achievement and an opportunity that demands changes in outmoded mindsets, attitudes, and socio-economic arrangements.”3 Some possible outmoded mindsets may include the notion that seniors don’t use computers or have access to electronic information, or that they only want to read romances and westerns.  In fact, as people age, they tend to become more individual and will have very diverse needs and wants from the library.

Population growth of the elderly has risen for several reasons and the impact is significant.  “The improved standards of living, social protections, and health conditions brought about by the industrial-scientific revolution have helped make abundant what was once scarce: older people.”4 The rate of current growth of the population of people over sixty years old will increase and “by 2025-2030, projections indicate that the population over 60 will be growing 3.5 times as rapidly as the total population (2.8 per cent compared to 0.8 per cent).”5

Another astounding statistic discusses the older group of older persons and a United Nations produced study indicates that that “in most parts of the world, the 80-and-over age group is growing faster than any other, and is expected to continue as the fastest growing segment of the population for at least the next 50 years.”6 Butler asserts that “the over-sixty group is the most rapidly growing in the world: its population was seven hundred million in 2007 and is estimated to increase to two billion by 2050.”7 Without a doubt, two billion older patrons, many of them Baby Boomers, will demand attention from libraries.

Age-related vision loss among the elderly is a major health care issue and one that certainly impacts library service to the aging population. “Approximately one person in three has some form of vision-reducing eye disease by the age of 65. The most common causes of vision loss among the elderly are age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataract and diabetic retinopathy.”8 The pupil and the lens are the structures that account for many of the visual changes and challenges faced by older adults.  “The pupil becomes reduced in size, letting in dramatically less light; and the lens becomes thicker, more opaque, and more yellowish in color, further reducing the light and clarity of the image that focuses on the retina.”9

There are several simple things that can be done to improve the presentation and accessibility of visual information that you have in your collection and that you produce.

  • Be aware the change in the eyes and visual abilities may account for choice of format in reading materials. For example, at WTBBL, 13% of seniors (age 65 and up) read large print books and 88% use books on cassette.
  • Provide lighting in your library that is yellowish and reduces glare while improving illumination.
  • Be aware that yellowish light, however, can effect color perception which also deteriorates with age.
  • Review your publications and materials. Use bright colors, high contrast, and a large type face. The higher the contrast, the less external light is needed.
  • Finally, “keep information relatively uncluttered, allowing the individual to focus on the few items of importance.”10

Another thing to consider in your services to older adults is the higher proportion of women in the older population due to higher mortality rates among men, even at older ages. The percentage of women in their age-group population tends to increase with advancing age.  Among the WTBBL centenarians, we have 74 women and 11 men. “In most countries, older women greatly outnumber older men.”11 Women “are the pioneers of aging and longevity, and the predominant representatives of the final stage of life.”12 So, when planning programs and collection development, topics of interest to women must be considered.

Carnahan and Parker, in Serving Seniors: A Resource Manual for Missouri Libraries, acknowledge the fact that librarians and library administrators must ask themselves several questions about library services to the aging population.  Questions to ask include:

  • “What makes planning for older adults different from planning for other adults?
  • How will library collections address the needs of older adults?
  • How can technology be used to expand services and resources?
  • How do we market library services to the 60+ audience?
  • Can we turn a 70-year-old non-library user into a library user and advocate?
  • How can the library contribute to successful aging?”13

The answers to these questions aren’t simple, yet we know that we should make every effort to meet the needs of the older adults and capture this audience for our libraries.

Furthermore, older adults need to be able to pursue all the opportunities available to others and to have equal access to information.  “Older persons should have access to the educational, cultural, spiritual, and recreational resources of society.”14 According to an AARP survey on lifelong learning, “older learners are most interested in subjects that would improve the quality of their lives, build upon a current skill, or enable them to take better care of their health. Most want to use what they have learned right away or in the near future; very few are willing to wait longer.”15 Moreover, “newspapers, magazines, books and journals are most often the tools used for learning by 64% of age 50+ individuals.”16

In a recent 2008 survey of the WTBBL patrons, we sent out 3,000 large print surveys and received 505 back, for a return rate of 16.8%.  Of the 505 responses, 78% self identified as “seniors,” which we had labeled as 55 years old and older.  It must be mentioned that some people checked both the “adult” box and the “senior” box so there may have been some confusion about the question.  Among the questions on how the library was doing, we asked what types of materials the patrons would be most interested in receiving, having the library produce, or having programming on certain topics.  The top three response categories were health (44 %), travel (42 %), and memoir writing (28 %). Under health, respondents expressed particular interest in topics like cancer, diabetes, and eye conditions. Other popular write-in requests included nutrition, history, science, and current events.

Clearly, there is a greater need to think about programming and service models for the aging patron population. But a common thread is the need for the ability to keep reading, regardless of age. For the WTBBL annual High Tea for our 10 Squared members (patrons 100 years old or older), we conducted interviews with seven centenarians and asked them for their words of wisdom. All attributed their longevity to reading and access to materials that allow them to continue reading even after their vision has started to deteriorate.

We can’t write off our older patrons. Rather we need to embrace them and tailor our services to meet their needs.  “The social construct of old age, even the inner life and the activities of older persons, is now subject to a positive revision.”17 A positive revision of the information service model for older adults is needed and further research in this topic is required as our population continues to age.  As Diana Cooper, a British socialite said, “First you are young; then you are middle-aged; then you are old; then you are wonderful.”

Works Cited

1.  Butler, Robert N.  The Longevity Revolution: The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life.  Public Affairs, New York.  2008. (p. 21)
2.  World Population Ageing: 1950-2050.  Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division.  United Nations.  New York, 2001. (xxviii)
3.  Butler, Robert N.  The Longevity Revolution. (p. 17)
4.  Ibid (p. 21)
5.  Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division (p. 11)
6.  Ibid (p. 1)
7.  Butler, Robert N. The Longevity Revolution. (p. 348)
8.  Quillen, David A.  Common Causes of Vision Loss in Elderly Patients. American Family Physician, July 1999.
9.  Hales-Mabry, Celia.  The World of the Aging: Information Needs and Choices.  American Library Association. 1993. (p. 12)
10.  Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division (p. 2)
11.  Butler, Robert N. The Longevity Revolution. (p. 66)
12.  Carnahan, Robin & Parker, Sara. Serving Seniors: A Resource Manual for Missouri Libraries. Missouri State Library, 2001. (introduction)
13.  Ibid (introduction)
14.  AARP Survey on Lifelong Learning: Research Report. Harris Interactive Inc. July 2000.  http://www.research.aarp.org/general/lifelong.html.
15.  Ibid
16.  Butler, Robert N. The Longevity Revolution. (p. 17)

2 Responses to Our Changing Users: The Aging of the Population

  1. [...] Informed Librarian Online selected Danielle H.M. King’s Our Changing Users: The Aging of the Population as one of their February 2009 Editor’s Picks. Each of their monthly issues, in addition to [...]

  2. MBarnett says:

    Thank you for this article – particularly the emphasis on revising our models of service for this group! Please publish more articles on this topic!

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